It is difficult for anyone schooled in the Catholic Church’s social justice tradition not to be moved, and moved profoundly, by the prospect of near universal health insurance, a prospect that took a giant step towards realization early this morning when the Senate invoked cloture on the reform legislation. Yet, the USCCB has said the bill should not move forward in its current form mainly because the provisions regarding the coverage of abortion are insufficient. Are the bishops right?
The short answer is: Yes. But, the more complicated answer is: It depends. The difference between the short and the complicated answer is reflected in the statements the bishops have been issuing. In contrast to some of the snarky attacks on Sen. Bob Casey and Sen. Ben Nelson coming from some pro-life leaders, the bishops applauded Casey’s "good-faith effort" to forge an acceptable compromise and noted that the final changes Nelson negotiated entailed further improvements of the underlying bill. And, the bishops acknowledged that they are still studying the changes.
To be clear, I wish profoundly the Senate had adopted the Stupak Amendment. And, the bishops wish the same thing. But the Stupak language was voted down in the Senate on a vote of 54-45. So, Lesson #1 from this whole affair is that we need more pro-life Senators. But, the response to the defeat of Stupak in the Senate cannot be to throw up our hands and the changes wrought, first by Casey and then by Nelson are not insignificant.
Lesson #2 is that we need more progressive Senators. If the Senate leadership had not had to cave previously on the public option, and if they had not had to cave on the Medicare buy-in, it would have been easier for Nelson to dig in and insist on the Stupak language. After those prior concessions to moderate sensibilities, if the Senate leadership had signed on to the Stupak language, several progressive senators would have bolted. Again, the difference between the USCCB which has stuck to its pro-health care reform stance provided there is no federal funding of abortion and some conservative outfits that have made it clear they just want to torpedo health care reform is a stark moral difference.
No one has been able to explain to me exactly how one provision of the final amendments will work. Women who are getting coverage through the exchanges with a federal subsidy will have to write two checks to the insurance company every month, one for their basic coverage and one for their abortion coverage. This would appear to achieve something that Stupak hinted at but did not enact, namely, riders. And, this is the reason that Planned Parenthood and NARAL have announced their objections to the bill. I am not a lawyer nor an expert on health insurance, so I am waiting for confirmation from others with greater expertise, but it seems to me that in this regard, the Nelson compromise is actually better, much better, than the Stupak language. Under this new compromise, every month, when she writes her premium check, a woman would be reminded: Abortion is not like other health care, which is the philosophic and moral heart of the Hyde Amendment.
On short, even if the USCCB in the end feels that the Stupak language is preferable to the Nelson language, the question is whether or not the Nelson language is close enough to Stupak to warrant, if not support, at least a willingness not to demonize those who support the bill. The most recent statement from the conference is certainly less strident than what one finds coming for the American Life League or the NRLC. That lack of stridency is increasingly appropriate as the Senate bill looks more and more like the House bill.